Harriet Murav, "For My Parents and Students," Response to Cary Nelson, 1/25 Colloquium, "Higher Education's Perfect Storm"

Sunday, January 31, 2010

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism

The Brooklyn Bridge photographed in the 1950s

[On January 25, 2010 the Unit hosted a lecture by Cary Nelson, “Higher Education’s Perfect Storm: What Can We Do?,” with responses by Douglas Beck (Physics) and Harriet Murav (Slavic/Comparative & World Lit). Below is an abridged version of Professor Murav’s response]

Written by Harriet Murav (Slavic/Comparative & World Lit)

I am grateful to Lauren Goodlad and the Unit for Criticism for organizing this important forum and asking me to participate. The GEO has been a source of inspiration; however, I would like to look back a little farther to acknowledge other people who brought me here.

My mother’s father Peysekh was an elevator operator in Brooklyn; my father’s father was a carpenter. My mother, who is 87, went to Brooklyn College. My late father, who came to this country in the 1920s, received a master’s degree in seventeenth-century English literature in the early 1950s thanks to the GI Bill.

If my parents had not had access to higher education, I doubt that I would have pursued a Ph.D. in comparative literature. This would not have been a loss for the profession, but would have been a loss to me, because I love my work. I love talking to students about Dostoevsky and Tolstoy; I love bouncing Yiddish writers against critical theory; I love writing for the opportunity it gives me to see an alternative vision to the world I already know. That new vision would be a lot poorer if I didn’t have graduate students to tell me the new things they discover in their work.

Access to excellence in higher education, which means everything to me personally, is what is at stake today at Illinois. On January 18, 2010 a reporter from the Daily Illini asked our Interim President, “With budget cuts and furloughs, how can the University of Illinois stay a top university in the nation?” Ikenberry answered, “That’s a tough one. I think the answer is, that may not be doable when you look at it.”

In contrast to President Ikenberry, I think excellence at Illinois is doable, even in the midst of a financial crisis. But no one asks me.

Excellence depends on small classes, what I call the gezundheit factor. A student sneezes and you say “Gezundheit, Mark.” Then Mark, who has been arguing with his classmate Luke about the meaning of a scene in War and Peace, approaches you after class and tells you he can’t decide whether to become a Russian major or do premed. And you start talking to him and keep talking to him all the way through his premed major, because all his science professors know him only by his user name. You and his other professors write him letters of recommendation and Northwestern medical school accepts him. Gezundheit, Mark!

Mark’s story is one dimension of excellence at Illinois which we can sustain even now. We can preserve small classes in Russian literature, physics, and physiology, and also teach big classes in these subjects. We can preserve our research mission: we can read Milton in a new way, invent new nanotechnology, and track black holes. All of it is economically feasible. We can take care of the bottom line and preserve our core values, but only if we articulate them and only if we critically examine the bookkeeping at this university. But no one asks me.

That no one asks me is my fault, my failure as a faculty member to take action, and it is also the failure of our administrators. It is the failure of our failed shared governance. Shared governance, along with academic freedom and tenure is one of the legs of the three-legged stool that Cary Nelson talks about in his new book, No University Is An Island.

Cary’s book could not have come at a more opportune time. We face an economic crisis at the state and university level, a crisis of ethics at the state and university level, and a crisis of vision at the state and university level. Cary’s book compellingly shows how excellence in education and research, academic freedom, governance, leadership, and budget are all intertwined. Cary also shows that the key to resolving the hydra-headed problem is up to us.

You may object. You may say, “I don’t teach controversial subjects, therefore my academic freedom is not at stake. I’m financially okay: I can handle a furlough/pay cut. I’ll let my colleagues worry about the Academic Senate; I do enough service. Besides, I just want time to finish my project.” No University is An Island shows that this response is no longer viable. No individual is an island either.

Excellence in undergraduate and graduate education, our research mission, and our academic freedom are all threatened at Illinois. The problem stems not so much from the financial crisis as from the longstanding erosion of our core values and their replacement with market values.

I will take just one thread, or, better, threat, and show how it runs across the entire fabric of our campus. No University is An Island explains the danger posed by the shift to contingent labor, an alleged cost-saving measure. Adjunct faculty are not permitted to contribute to the research mission or to shared governance; they have no job security and are therefore more vulnerable to self-censorship and pressure from administrators.

But we don’t use adjunct faculty at Illinois, right? Think again. We’re in the second year of a hiring freeze that shows every sign of continuing for a third year and beyond. How is our campus responding to the freeze?

A December 2009 memo from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences went to all executive officers. It provided an analysis of the cost of delivering an “Instructional Unit” (IU). The budget memo suggests that the use of a $40K instructor (contingent laborer) allegedly delivers an IU more cheaply than a 50% graduate student teaching assistant with a non-resident tuition waiver. I quote from the LAS memo, which asks units to estimate the cost of generating an instructional unit:

For example, if a 50% FTE [full-time enrollment] TA who is paid 15k/year plus a non-resident tuition waiver of 22.5k/year (total compensation of 37.5 K/year) generates 150 instructional units per year, the cost would be $250/IU <…> For example, if a 100%FTE instructor paid 40K/year generates an average of 1200 instructional units per year, the cost would be $33/IU

Calling a non-resident tuition waiver "compensation" is wrong. It’s smoke and mirrors. (After all, subsidization of graduate study through tuition waivers is what makes graduate study in the humanities and interpretive social sciences economically possible for those who choose it. And tuition waivers for such study is no more a source of lost revenue to the University than the non-reporting of income you never earned is a lost revenue to the IRS.)

But the writing on the wall could not be clearer: especially now that our unionized grad students have negotiated slightly more livable working conditions, we are going to cut back on their employment, because, according to this false accounting, it is too expensive.

Units that depend on LAS for funding for graduate students should have looked for alternative sources a long time ago. The presumptive model of the memo is that a graduate student should be understood, first and foremost, as a source of revenue. My father’s education was not understood that way; mine wasn’t; and the education of my graduate students from Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Iowa, California, and Illinois should not be either. We like to talk about our global campus, but don’t we really mean our market-driven campus?

Let’s continue our close reading of the budget memo and trace its threats to excellence in education. The threat to graduate programs in the humanities and the interpretative social sciences is obvious. The threat to undergraduate education, including key courses that teach writing and critical thinking, is also real: no more discussion sections in the large lecture classes we teach. This threat poses a danger to the research mission. How can we preserve the gezundheit factor in undergraduate education if the classes we teach grow ever larger? If the sheer mass of our student load leaves us less time for thinking, let alone research?

The same December memo talks about the need to curtail leave time. If your research does not “translate” into a marketable product, as Cary points out, whether you are in the humanities or the sciences, you may find it impossible to get funding for it.

Strangely enough, the budget memo, focused on the bottom line, threatens the bottom line. If we falsely call a tuition waiver a cost, and we save that “cost” by hiring more contingent faculty who teach 6 or more classes a year, we are going to lose revenue from undergraduate tuition, because the value of an education at Illinois will decline. Why should parents pay upwards of $10,000 for U of I tuition when their student is one of 700 in a classroom taught by instructors who have long ago stopped knowing who their students are and who have long ago stopped doing research (though through no fault of their own)?

“What is to be done?” asked Nikolai Chernyshevsky in 1862. In 2010 at Illinois the answer is: Come to the February 9 meeting organized by the CFA and concerned faculty. Come to the February 15 teach-in. Let’s work together to preserve excellence and academic freedom and to achieve shared governance.

Let’s articulate our core values as a public university and let’s be sure those values are realized, not undermined, in concrete budgetary and policy decisions. Discussions with your colleagues, emails to deans and other administrators, and articles and letters in the press only go so far, however.

As Cary argues, collective bargaining is the most effective way to resolve the vision crisis and to secure a faculty voice in the deliberations that determine every aspect of our professional lives and on which the future of our public university depends. Let’s join my grandfather Peysekh the elevator operator. Let’s unionize.


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Anonymous said...

The budget memo is insanity in ways that even Murav doesn't acknowledge. How can you compare what a grad student is doing in small lower-level classroom to what the instructor of a large lecture is doing. Part of what the grad student is doing is TRAINING TO BECOME the person qualified to lead a large lecture. By treating both of these hypothetical teachers as if they were IU delivery systems rather than people at different stages of their professional development the memo manages to overlook a whole range of qualitative differences that should always come into play in higher education--much less at a research institution. What is the end of this way of thinking? Let's have every class be large lecture. Let's make every leader of a large lecture an adjunct instead of a tenure track professor. Let's not have any graduate study because graduate students don't deliver the cheapest imaginable "IUS" Eventually who will be teaching these large lectures? This may seem far-fetched but I'd say the same about the memo Murav quotes from. It's outrageous how far this logic has come from anything to do with a quality education. There's no telling where it will stop.

KBHC said...

Great points, Harriet and Anonymous! The other issue I find troubling is this imaginary graduate tuition that the university uses as part of its calculation of the "cost" of a graduate student. We are talking about Monopoly money here. I mean, I guess I could tell my family that I pay myself when I make dinner, and that we need to calculate the cost of my cooking labor into our budget. But all that does is inflate the appearance of our budget, not tell us anything real about what we are spending and earning.